Lining Up Toys Doesn’t Mean Your Toddler Has Autism

After head-banging, this is the other behavior that seems to terrify parents of young children.  Seeing a row of vehicles on the carpet makes parents run to Google in fear.  Well, I want all of you to take a deep breath and then exhale.  The truth is that there are other behaviors that are more indicative of autism.  Here is what I think that row of tiny toys often means:

Very young children have a natural interest in order and understanding spatial relationships.  Kids like routine and familiarity way more than most adults.  Some children are just experimenting with how lines are formed or seeing how long a row of cars they can create.  Some will even match colors or sizes.  And it is OK if Lightening McQueen has to be the first in the line.  Sometimes routines have purpose.  When your child tells you that you read Goodnight Moon wrong (you just paraphrased to end it early), he is really saying that he likes the familiarity and the orderliness of hearing those words said in that order.  Boring to you, comforting to him.  Experts in early literacy will tell you that his fondness for hearing the same story over and over is actually a developmental milestone in phonemic awareness, the cornerstone of language mastery.

Controlling their environment and creating patterns is another reason to line up those cars.  Young children do not create complex play schemes about races or adventures.  Lining them up is developmentally correct play for very young children, and it can easily expand with a little demonstration and engagement with you.  Build a garage from Megablox and see if your child will enjoy driving each one into the garage to “sleep at night”.  Don’t mention that in real life we all use our garages as storage units!  Typically-developing children may even repeat your game later the same day, having learned a new way to play with their toys.

When does lining up toys become troublesome?  When it is the ONLY way that your child interacts with those toys, or with any toys. And when you try to expand their play as above, they lose their lunch because it is all about rigid routines, not object exploration.  That line of cars is part of their environmental adaptation for security and stability; it’s not actually play at all.  There isn’t a sense of playfulness about changing things around.

A lack of developmentally appropriate play skills is a concern to a child development specialist, but it still doesn’t translate into autism.  Here are a few behaviors in 1-2 year-olds that concern me much more:

  • little or no eye contact when requesting something from you.  They look at the object or the container, not you.
  • no response when her name is called, or looking toward people when the name of family members is mentioned.
  • using an adult’s hand as a “tool” to obtain objects rather than gesturing, pointing or making eye contact to engage an adult for assistance.

Always discuss your concerns with your pediatrician, and consider an evaluation through your local Early Intervention service if you continue to see behaviors that keep you up at night.  They can help you!

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